Just before you read the next installment, we would like to thank eveyone who has suported us by reading this blog, and by kind emails and messages. It has really meant a lot when the chips are down to know that people are thinking of us back home.
We are now well over half way, and have clovered over 15,000 miles. If you have enjoyed reading this blog, or are as surprised as we are that we have made it this far, please consider donating to our charities. 100% of your donations go to charity, this expedition is completely funded by us! Just click the red ‘donate’ button on the right of your screen. Thank you.
There is no manned border on the Turkana road, and travellers are required to stamp exit paperwork in the remote Ethiopian town of Omorate, some 100km before the border. There is no Kenyan office at all, and anyone crossing this way must essentially enter illegally until they can reach Nairobi, or an exit border. It is sufficiently far south and west from Addis that any return journey is unthinkable, a fact the Ethiopian customs officer obviously takes advantage of on a regular basis. His exit stamps remained very much in their drawer in his dusty little office as he inhaled air through his teeth and inspected our documents. He smirked at us and shook his head.
“There is a problem with these papers” he said, leaning back in his chair and framing himself rather nicely against the huge anti corruption poster on the wall behind him as he did so. “I cannot let you pass. You must return to Addis”.
My sharp response was to request his name, rank, and commanding officer’s details, as well as to comment on his moral fibre, or lack thereof. Luckily my tongue refused to comply with both simultaneous commands, and instead I managed a sort of strangled smirk. I was annoyed at myself. We should be used to these sorts of situations by now, and it feels like a personal failure when you let yourself blood rise. It was obvious what this chap was looking for, but I was reluctant to offer him undeserved backshish for a fabricated problem. Corruption is a big problem in Africa (and unsurprisingly has been found to inversely correlate with the economic development of a country), but we had been pleasantly surprised about how upstanding officials had been thus far, with the hugely expensive exception of Egypt. Admittedly we have perfected the art of making things as difficult as possible for the overly inquisitive officer (our papers are in Addis; can I see your regulations for that offence?; you must take us to the police station for that; can we have a receipt for that fine?; let me just call my embassy and ask their advice). Even so, most frustrations arise from general system failure and incompetence rather than individual corruption.
The springs of the officer’s chair squealed in relief as he levered himself to his feet and sidestepped purposefully around his desk. I had regained my composure, and allowed myself to be led by the hand into a dark corner. Eventually we came to a reluctant and secret agreement. He produced his ink and pocketed our Jackson in one smooth movement, and left me flapping the damp page in my passport and pondering a sad last interaction with a country that had proved to be more alien and wonderful than we could have expected.
We had stayed the night before quite unexpectedly with none other than a Hubertus Von Pachmann. The man was everything his name promised. He had found us on the banks of the Omo, near Omorate, peering into the murky waters and wondering if the crocodiles were absent enough to allow a quick swim. We had happened to stray onto the grounds of a huge farm during our search for a swimming spot, and had bumped into none other than the Austrian manager of a 20,000 hectare property. From his appearance he was in every way the white African, from his toothy grin to his khaki shorts and sheath knife. Life out here was lonely, he told us, many hundreds of kilometres from the capital, and many thousands of kilometres from his wife and children back in Austria. Hubertus was of a persuasive nature, and we soon found ourselves abandoning our swim and settling in with beers and grilled Nile Perch in his back yard. We watched the Southern Cross work its way across the horizon as we heard about the life of a man who had grown up in Rhodesia, volunteering with the elite Selous Scouts when the fight for independence came. He had farmed in Rhodesia, Somalia, and Angola to name but a few, and found himself unable to leave a continent where he had spent and risked his life so many times. As we ate he smelt the rain, long before we caught a whiff, and sure enough thunder caps soon obscured the constellations.
It poured. It should have been a time for celebration, jubilation. We had not seen rain for a full three months, and this was rain as only the tropics can muster. It bounced several feet off the concrete, thundered on the steel roof, cascaded through our ill fitting Land Rover doors to soak our worldly belongings. We sat silently, conscious of the endless river crossings we would have to face over the next few days, fully aware of our inexperience. Hubertus remained cheerful, told us this was a “just a spot of rain. Ja, it will be sucked up by the morning”. He was of course right. Dry as a bone, we set off the next morning refreshed and inspired.
The turning to Turkana was unmarked, unused, unceremonious. Had it been in the UK it would have barely qualified as a farm track. We exchanged wry smiles, selected Low Range, and turned south. We were excited and nervous, and for the next week every jolt, every new noise was an irreparable mechanical fault.
Everything seemed exaggerated here. The bush was wilder and more vicious, the river beds huge and treacherous, some hundreds of meters wide – but blissfully empty. The heat was more intense, reaching 45 degrees at midday when the sun would cast no shadow from a man. The road alternated between deep sand and large pebbles, which chattered angrily as we drove over them. I was transported by the sound to the winter swells raking the stones on St Agnes beach. Lake Turkana stretched across the western horizon just like that ocean so many miles away. We couldn’t shake the feeling how far we were from home, or anywhere else for that matter. It seemed an eternity since we had departed from the cold, misty headland of Droskyn. Here the nearest help was a minimum of two days drive in every direction. We carried all we would need: fuel, water, and food for 600km of wilderness, as well as a best guess of tools and spares that may prove essential.
As we drove we passed the occasional nomad in traditional garb, looking strikingly at home in their hostile environment. They shepherded great herds of camels and the ancient horned Ankole-Watusi cattle from one frazzled patch of grass to another. Everyone here has a high velocity rifle slung over their shoulder, oiled and ready. Being from a land where the most lethal weapon on show is a taser, guns make us nervous. It would be so easy for any of these men to relieve us of all we had and leave us to expire in this beautiful wasteland. We were greeted however with nothing but waves and stares, by people whose borders were tribal, not international. Addis Ababa and Nairobi were words whispered by the wisest of elders; these people are governed by the same rules today as a thousand years ago, and the Ethiopian Kenyan border is but an arbitrary line drawn by unknown, un-witnessed colonial powers.
We were in convoy with ‘the Swiss’, whose Vauxhall Frontera struggled to keep up with even our rheumatic vehicle. Multiple times, they beached on the central islands that separated the ruts of the track. Each time, we would strive and sweat in the searing sun to dig them out. Tess groaned and roared, but each time succeeded where we had not in pulling them free. We were glad of their company, unshakable cool temperaments, and psy-trance music. Several times the path was lost, or proved impassable, and we struggled to keep up a pace faster than 15 kilometres per hour.
The sky was beginning to bruise as we pulled in to a small peninsula which protruded out into the lake. Here in the Siboloi national park is a small collection of buildings populated by countless skeletons and fossils, which has served for decades as an anthropologist’s frontier camp, and is the base for Dr Richard Leakey’s project which discovered the ‘Turkana Boy’, a 1.6 million year old Homo Erectus skeleton on the shores of Lake Turkana. We are finding that you really have to do something wild to impress anyone in Africa, and sure enough the greeting we received from the American anthropologist who resided here was as casual as though we had just strolled in from walking the dog. “Nice day?” he enquired, as we emerged shell-shocked from our traumatised vehicles. We stared as he lit his pipe, and discoursed about his life here. He resides in one of the most impressive and amazing places on earth, in my book.
The sun was low slung, and scattered its rays in a thousand beads of colour as we ran down to the shores for a swim. The water was cool, and distinctively alkaline – almost soapy, and the sun caught the ripples and the top of the thunder caps that were throwing bolts of lightning across the eastern sky. We cooked outside, agoraphobic and mesmerised by this endless hypnotic space, and wondered what was to come.